Cartoonish vs Authentic Sexuality

Dolls“I believe we should afford our daughters and ourselves a right to our own authentic sexuality,” to paraphrase psychoanalyst and author Joyce McFadden. “Not the cartoonish MTV kind, but the kind where we respect ourselves enough to listen to what our bodies and hearts feel is right for us.”  

What is authentic sexuality? In a recent post I suggested it is neither shameful nor a crutch for powerlessness or low self-esteem. But what else?

Young women are flooded with images screaming “sexy is” which can feel foreign or unpleasant. Or the market offers limited choice. Some have a hard time finding anything they feel comfortable wearing because sexy is all that’s offered.

Cartoonish sexuality is all about surface. It’s about plastic and peroxide, feeling famished and wearing clothing – or even implants – that don’t quite fit.

Actor Gabriel Olds tells a story about a woman he met at a party who blurted out, “By the way, these fake boobs are so not me.” He asked why she’d gotten them. A former boyfriend had awoken her one morning with the romantic proposition, “Hey, you ever think about getting better tits?” So she bought D-cups. He left her soon after. Eventually, she got the implants removed because they had never felt like “her.”

I asked my students how they imagined cartoonish sexuality. They saw it as a freakish figure not found in nature: Huge boobs combined with small waist and hips, big lips, bleached blond hair. Also, how society sees sexy – not what comes from inside. Artificial and superficial.

Taking it further, how cartoonish are seven-year-olds wearing Abercrombie and Finch padded bras or ten-year-olds in thongs? (Do parents actually buy these or does Abercrombie just stock them knowing they’ll bring plenty of free publicity?) 

And authentic sexuality? When it came to looks, my students described it as natural, appreciating a range of sizes and body types, including your own. Light makeup (or none), a real smile, good personality, a sense of humor and confidence. Who you really are. I’ve got some pretty wise students.

Let’s turn to what inauthentic sexuality feels like. Having sex out of feeling pressured from friends or boyfriends. Having sex because it seems like the “right time,” but not because you want to.

Experiencing sexuality through the male gaze is not authentic, either. Women too often focus on how they look instead of how they feel in the bedroom. They are observing (and often criticizing) but not experiencing. 

Inauthentic sexuality involves unhappily acting like porn stars for your partner’s pleasure, but not your own. (If you’re both enjoying it, that’s different). Some do things they don’t like just to keep the guy. One woman called these experiences “harrowing.”

We can all take a page from our ancient sex-positive Tahitian sisters who were not objectified in the way Western women are today, who learned the beauty of sexuality, and who did not act only for others. Of course, we live in a complex world so our sexuality must be conscientious. We must protect ourselves and others from sexually transmitted diseases. We must take care not to bring lives into the world when we are not ready for the responsibility.

Here’s what one commenter on Part I of this series wrote.  

Personally, I’m constantly questioning myself when I get dressed; am I choosing this outfit for attention or simply because I genuinely like it? I try to embrace my sexuality and my femininity and dress/act in a way that’s natural for me. I don’t like playing games or feeling like I have to put on a show for others… Perhaps one small step towards liberation is dressing and acting for oneself rather than for others.

Georgia Platts

Related Posts on BroadBlogs
“Dressing Like Prostitutes”? Authentic Sexuality?
Men Are Naturally Attracted To Unnatural Women
Beautiful Women’s Hips Are Thinner Than Their Heads?

About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on May 4, 2011, in body image, feminism, gender, objectification, psychology, sex and sexuality, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. I was struck by your comment on the “male gaze”–that term feels like a very apt assessment of the vantage women are culturally pressured to take, and is evocative of the external, superficial quality of cartoonish sexuality. After all, when (straight) women adopt the perspective of the men to evaluate their “appeal,” they forsake their own internal/authentic desires. Your point was very eloquently made.

    That said, I find your students’ conception of authentically sexual women disappointingly restrictive. The ideal they describe as wearing “[l]ight makeup (or none), a real smile, good personality, a sense of humor and confidence” may well be the authentic self of some women, but why impose that trope on a woman who may instead be inclined, innately, toward makeup and more risqué fashions? Is anyone who enjoys the aesthetic troped as “cartoonish” *necessarily* artificial? Instead of suggesting a universally “authentic” woman (what an oxymoron!), I should hope a caveat parallel to the “if you’re both enjoying it, that’s different” (as you applied to sexual activity) exists here. If a woman genuinely possesses standards of beauty that happen to coincide with men’s, and society’s at large, so be it.

    • Seems as good a place as any.

      Interesting how all everyone looks beautiful when they appear happy and confident. Not so much when they don’t.

      • the point, I think, it was to compare the sexy poses who have used in the media vs poses that aren’t in the media

      • Maybe. But that seems odd since they look so unconfident and unhappy in the nonmedia poses. I like to see it the way I did.

      • You should watch the last episode of South Park (s17 e10).
        Is about the perception of body image and how we are affected by fake photoshoped images.

      • Actually that’s what the photographer said the idea was. She said that for the first photo she asked the models to do a “media pose” that we have get used as being sexy, so that’s why it seems to us to be sexy, and for the second photo she asked the models to do an unconvential pose that we don’t see in the media.
        It explains that in the site

      • I wonder why in all the unconventional poses the women chose to pose unattractively — kind of weirdly. Like there is some polarity between attractive and unattractive and not much in between. I’ve seen paintings that don’t look like media poses– More like women doing something natural as they get ready for bath or something–and they don’t look unattractive. It’s like”unconventional” means weird.

  2. Jessica Garriga

    Because I never felt the need to please men, I never dressed oddly as a child. Then again, I developed very early in my life and quickly, so big breasts were more of a nightmare than something I was trying to achieve. I did however feel the pressure to attract boys. Peers in the 4th grade would oogle the boys in the class and express how ‘hot’ they were. Since I was never attracted to boys to begin with, I didn’t get the appeal so i never tried to impress them. I was often ridiculed by little girls for not caring and even getting my cloths dirty from playing in the grass. Apparently, back when i was little, girls aren’t suppose to go have fun and play if it meant getting their cloths messy, but boys could do that. It always felt like girls were trying to attract something. I don’t think they liked boys yet, since they would say how gross they are, yet they did their best to have them pay attention to them. I even remember kids “dating” (and i use that term loosely) and having little drama fits about stupid things. I’m glad I was more concerned on climbing the monkey bars and playing tag than attracting boys. My childhood was a lot less stressful and more fun that way

  3. This post has defiantly got me thinking about the topics that were brought up. I find it interesting how people actually get plastic surgery. I believe that people are beautiful both inside and out no matter how they feel. I don’t understand why they feel the need to feel gorgeous if they replace or put something into their own body just for attention or to gain more men at their feet. I feel like that defeats the purpose of your original body. If your partner cares about you, they should be able to accept the flaws you have a person.
    Another topic that was brought up was regarding young children. I agree that the “kids” of today’s generation are completely different from how they were when I was growing up. No one really thought of looking gorgeous when we went to go to elementary school or even really thought of the way they dressed. However, take a elementary kid from this generation, you’ll see a completely different perspective they have compared to when I was growing up. They talk about how they have to dress up nice for boys and actually have “relationship” drama when they should be worrying about whose it on the playground!

  4. Deirdre da Silva

    I completely agree with this post. All too often, women try to act or dress in a certain manner simply because they feel that this is what will attract men, or this is what men want, but I honestly don’t think that women should be trying to attract any man that wants them to change themselves or the way that they look. Nobody should ever have to go as far as having surgery in order to please somebody else; if you truly feel that such things would make you feel happy, then by all means go ahead.

  5. Anthalanette Andrews

    I too am a person that couldn’t agree with this post more. I feel that some women or ladies take this whole sexuality thing to another level, but don’t realize the way that a man or men may really look at them. I am a person that can attest that in the beginning of my relationship with my now husband I would buy all types of lingerie to express my sexiness; however I was expressing it for my own good as well as to please him. Nowadays things have changed because I have found out that I can wear a pair of normal pajamas and still be sexy. That’s not to say that there is anything wrong with wearing lingerie for your man or husband, but I do believe that some women take things a little too far to maintain their sexiness. At this point it really doesn’t matter what I wear my husband constantly tells me how sexy I am and believe me I appreciate the fact that I don’t have to wear certain things to look sexy in his eyes as well as my own.

  6. I couldn’t agree more with this blog. I do feel that many women strive to look sexy but fail to define what sexy means to them. I am reminded of a time I was having a late lunch with a friend at a local restaurant (Santana Row ) and I saw a girl who screamed ‘uncomfortable’ with every stride she took. She had on a low cut top that she kept on adjusting every minute or so, incredibly tight pants and a lot of makeup. What caught my attention the most were her six inch stilettos. She seemed very self conscious as she walked trying her best to maintain her balance and not tip over. Her date was sitting not too far from our table, so she uncomfortably walked over and joined him. I had a closer look at her and was reminded of a television show I had seen as a kid where a little girl was playing with a Barbie doll and asked her mother if she’ll ever be ‘that’ beautiful (pointing at the doll) I couldn’t help but wonder if the woman sitting next to us was still a little girl wondering if she’ll ever be ‘that’ beautiful?

  7. I agree with this post. I do agree that women often feel that they have to focus on pleasing men with their looks and often times forget what pleases them. It’s too common that a woman dresses provocatively merely because they feel they need to in order to attract men. I believe women should focus on dressing to please themselves rather than men, often times wearing what pleases you will also please others because you are acting like your true self and not emulating something your not.

  8. Alexis Quarles

    The part about ten year old girls wearing thongs strangely enough hits pretty close to home. Going through grade school (around 4th and 5th grade) there were plenty of girls who would wear the “big girl lingerie” the got from Abercrombie and the like.
    I remember feeling pressured by them to constantly push to be sexier, or more desirable. At ten years old, who exactly am I trying to attract? I don’t think any of us really knew the answer to that, but it felt necessary all the same.
    You raise an interesting question by asking what exactly are they trying to do by having those items in stock. Gives me the chills thinking about the production and sales pitch at the corporate headquarters.

    • Your question merits an entire post, itself. I’ll have to write on this topic.

      Both women and girls are much more sexualized now than in the past. At 10 I didn’t think about myself in a sexual way, at all. And I was watching some romantic comedies from years ago, like “About Last Night” w/Demi Moore and Rob Lowe. Demi’s clothing is not sexualized, AT ALL. And I found that interesting by today’s standards.

      What’s behind the change? I suspect a combo of the market (money making) and a backlash to women’s empowerment: Trying to define women more in terms of the purely sexual.

      I’ll write more on this later.

  1. Pingback: My friend talked about kissing girls to me, does she want to kiss me? | girls gone wilde

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